Amazing Tales From the Boston Marathon

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Runners dressed as Forrest Gump, Elvis, Bozo the Clown and the Cat in the Hat all crossed the finish line in front of me at the Boston Marathon one year.

So did a shirtless participant running backwards, possibly in search of a Nike endorsement. A magic marker message was scrawled where you'd expect to see his chest: "Backwards Man -- It Do Just."

"In front of me" is not the same as "ahead of me." "Ahead" would suggest movement on my part, perspiration even. Not standing at the finish line as stationary as Boston's North Church taking notes for a story on the 100th anniversary of the greatest American road race.

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The Kenyan winner that year, Moses Tanui, crossed the finish line, bowed his head to accept the victor's wreath and proceeded to answer questions without a hint of breathlessness. He spoke as calmly as if he'd arrived by subway—which runner Rosie Ruiz (above) did one year, but more on her later.

Tanui has since retired so he won't be competing in the 115th Boston Marathon on the third Monday of April. But the runner who caught my attention at the centennial race will return, once again pushing his son, Rick, in a wheelchair, and no doubt inspiring more people than all the wreath-crowned champions in the history of the event.

Let's Roll

Dick Hoyt is 70. Last year's Boston Marathon was the 1,000th race the Hoyts completed. That number includes 28 Boston Marathons and 238 triathlons.

Triathlons involve swimming, biking and running. So Dick Hoyt straps a small craft to his back and pulls his son through the water, and pedals him on a reconfigured bicycle to the bike-run transition area. They have completed six Ironman triathlons (2.4 mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2 mile run).

Rick Hoyt is 49 now. His cerebral palsy was traced to oxygen deprivation at birth. Using a computer to communicate, he got his degree from Boston University. The first computer-aided words he typed as a kid: "Go Bruins."

When Dick Hoyt realized how much his young son loved sports, he took him fishing, tying a string to his finger. He pushed him around the baseball diamond.

Hockey was a favorite of Rick's. So the father strapped bars to the back of a sled and used the blades of the sled as a hockey stick.

Running was Rick's idea. Their first race was a local five-miler.

They finished next-to-last. But Rick Hoyt told his father he didn't feel "handicapped" when running. That's all Dick Hoyt needed to hear.

Their first Boston Marathon together, they entered unofficially. The Boston Marathon, after all, is not for the beginner. While allowances are made for non-qualifying runners, most runners have to meet strenuous qualifying standards.

In 1980, their first Boston, the race was made famous by the cheating Ruiz, who took the subway, jumped into the race late, was crowned champ and stripped of the title eight days later.

The Hoyts couldn't get a number that year. The Boston Athletic Association told them they needed to qualify like everyone else. And at the specified time for Rick's age group.

He was 18. The Hoyt's had to qualify at 2 hours, 50 minutes. Fast. They eventually ran the Marine Corps Marathon in 2:45 to qualify both of them.

The day I watched the Hoyts finish Boston, the ovation was long and loud. They had been honored as "Centennial Heroes" at a function the same week.

"We've come a long way," Dick Hoyt said that day. "Just to run the 100th Boston Marathon is satisfaction enough. Sometimes today my feet weren't even touching the ground."

Two years later, inspired in part by watching the Hoyts, I ran my first marathon.

Fifteen years later, Team Hoyt is scheduled to compete at Boston again. May the wind always be at their back.

Fun Facts and Oddities

• The starting line at the first Boston Marathon in 1897 was a heel dug in the dirt and scraped across the road. A "handler" accompanied each runner on bicycle. No word on whether they were licensed paramedics.

• A Boston Herald story in the mid-1950s carried a warning: "No weaklings will be permitted to start the marathon tomorrow." Doctors declared three runners "unfit." They ran anyway and finished in the Top 10.

• The irony is the race that did so much to popularize running in America and fought so hard for mainstream acceptance of running was hardly inclusive or accepting of older runners and women. In 1952 the Boston Athletic Assocation told 52-year-old Peter Foley he was too old to run. He shaved his gray beard and ran anyway.

• For the 100th anniversary, I talked to Bobbi Gibb, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon. She had to run it as a bandit, wearing a hooded sweatshirt to conceal her identity. She hid in the bushes near the starting line.

She told me she had sent an application into the BAA. The response?

"They said women are in 1966 not physiologically able to run the marathon distance," she said. "Futhermore they are not allowed to."

Gibb, who trained in nursing shoes but made the painful decision to run in brand new running shoes, ran a 3:21.

• The next year, 1967, the BAA received an application from a "K.V. Switzer." They didn't know the "K" stood for Kathrine. There's a famous picture of Jock Semple of the BAA bounding off the press truck and trying to rip the No. 261 off her back only to get blocked to the ground by Switzer's boyfriend, a former college football player.

"(Kathrine and I) were both back on the sports page," Gibb said of her second running of the Boston Marathon. "Kathrine with Jock chasing after her. It was like, 'Babes Bug Marathon Chief.'"

Gibb finished well ahead of Switzer that year, but neither time was recorded.

“There are no girls in the Boston Marathon,” declared race director Will Cloney.

• The Boston Athletic Association finally began recording women's champions when Nina Kuscsik won in 1972.

• The most appropriately named champion of the Boston Marathon showed up at the 100th anniversary in 1996. Johnny Miles was 91 at the time. Reached at his home in Nova Scotia, the 1929 winner said, "The shoes I wore cost 98 cents. They were top of the line."

• The tradition is for the Boston Red Sox to play at Fenway at 11 a.m. on Patriot's Day, after which fans file out to cheer the marathoners. After years of late-season folds by the Sox, the great Joan Benoit put on a Red Sox cap in Brookline, not far from Fenway, to remind her not to lose the lead.

• In 1907, race officials failed to check the railroad schedule in South Framingham. A freight train separated the lead runners from the rest of the field for more than a minute.

• Johnny Kelley is a two-time Boston Marathon champ and one of the event's most famous names. You want a measure of how much staying power a sports event has? You can start right there.

Kelley turns 80 this year. His nickname, "The Younger."

That's how Boston Marathon fans and historians differentiate him from the other Boston Marathon champ of the same name.

You guessed it. Johnny "The Elder" Kelley (no relation).

• Johnny "The Younger" Kelley was tripped up by a stray dog in Newtwon Lower Falls in 1961. The dog ran with the marathon lead pack for almost a dozen miles. According to the Boston Globe, Kelley held no grudges, saying, “Have you ever seen a dog in such good
condition?”

• According to Legend, Heartbreak Hill was coined by Jerry Nason of the Boston Globe when defending champ Johnny "The Elder" Kelley caught up to leader Ellison "Tarzan" Brown and tapped him on the shoulder as if to say, "Nice try, pal." Brown ran him down and won easily.

• Jacqueline Gareau thought she'd won the 1980 race. Instead she arrived at the finish line to see Rosie Ruiz wearing the victor's wreath. Ruiz apparently jumped into the race at Kenmore Square. Her 25-minute improvement over her qualifying time immediately raised suspicion and she was stripped of the title eight days later.

According to the Globe, when Gareau returned 25 years later to serve as grand marshal, she got out of a car and jokingly jogged across the finish line. “I'm like Rosie now,” she said. “Is this right?”

Bud Shaw is a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer who has also written for the Philadelphia Daily News, San Diego Union-Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The National. You can read his Plain Dealer columns at Cleveland.com, and read all his mental_floss articles here.

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April 16, 2011 - 9:01pm
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